If you live in a country that isn’t Australia, this post may offer minimal usefulness. As my online presence involves the provision of content nobody asks for, however, here it is: a rundown of the embroidery-related things I like, where I found them and how I make my sewing hobby just a little more affordable.
I don’t have a lot of money. I use dollar shop and eBay floss for my practice, test, example and experimental pieces. I routinely sin by combining Anchor and DMC floss in the one project. I’m not interested in promoting embroidery idealism or best practice over helping queer people express their pride through needle and thread–especially those beneath the lesser-known sections of our wide umbrella. I am interested in discussing common, more-affordable materials so beginners know where to direct limited finances when following my tutorials.
Unfortunately, buying locally online in Australia means prohibitive shipping costs. (An ordinary horror: $10-$12 flat rate shipping for a $4 needle set.) Unless you’re buying other things from a general retailer like Big W or Amazon, or you lack offline access to the necessary shops, it’s a lot cheaper to buy in person. Daiso also has no online marketplace in Australia (meaning buying in person or via a third-party seller) and most op shops inherently mean offline situations.
Much of this information serves folks who live in or close to cities and have access to transport. (And aren’t under stay-at-home orders!) I make most purchases when I’m in an area for another reason (checking out Daiso on the way to a pain specialist appointment, for example) to limit costs. I am fortunate enough to have a couple of the mentioned shops located within walking distance, which helps a lot in saving on petrol or bus fare.
First: Get Thee to Opportunity (Thrift) Shops
If your path through life brings you close to an opportunity shop (Australian for “thrift shop”), check it out. Op shops are amazing for finding random sewing bits. I’ve found (or had people find for me) embroidery hoops and frames, bags of vintage Anchor floss, complete kits, and aida offcuts.
I’ve purchased large, unopened cross-stitch kits for $5 AUD and small kits for $0.50-$2. This gives me floss, a needle and a piece of aida (a big piece in larger kits), even if I’m uninterested in the pattern. I’ve even found several aida colours, through kits, that aren’t available in my local shops.
I’ve also had luck at markets and garage sales (Australian for “yard sale”), but I find op shops to be a more-consistent source of pre-loved haberdashery. The trick is doing this regularly … and accepting that the op shop gods are not always with you!
Second: Hunt Down Nana’s Sewing Box
If you have living family members who sew and aren’t fonts of harm or hatred, I don’t need to tell you to revere these gods for the potential teachers and providers of haberdashery supplies they are. If you aren’t this fortunate, but have relatives prone to keeping things “just in case”, try asking after the fate of a deceased relative’s sewing box. My grandmother died when I was four, but Mum still had some of Nana’s things two decades later: her button tin, spools of thread, embroidery floss, glass-headed pins.
You may not be able to chase up anything, but it’s worth asking–even if your ancestors were only occasional sewists. Chain store selections today don’t match the quality or variety of Nana’s sewing threads. Vintage needles and pins in good condition are the ultimate treasure. Even op shop button jars are surprisingly expensive! Anything that gives you a start on putting together a kit is helpful for embroidery and household sewing alike … and making yourself known as interested in sewing may mean your relatives think of you should they happen across a future trove of haberdashery.
(And if your relative objected to your existence, you can give them the metaphorical finger by using their sewing box to craft your pride.)
Third: If You Must Buy New Things…
The blunt truth is this: modern needles and pins are awful. I’ve had brand new needles warp, bend and snap under expected usage (and not my doing ridiculous things like using fine sharps to sew through denim). Quality hand-sewing needles are expensive and, at least in Australia, difficult to find offline.
Klasse needles are the only readily-available needles I like. Big W sells embroidery and tapestry needle cassettes ($2.50 AUD), and they’re both better and cheaper than other chain-store sets. Klasse’s size 3-9 embroidery crewels are sharp and move smoothly through the fabric; I use them for freehand embroidery, edging cross-stitch patches and general sewing. Unfortunately, the size 18-22 tapestry set is best for actual tapestry and folks who use Daiso’s 11-count aida.
(A quick note for newbies: needle sizes run backwards. A size 18 tapestry needle is big enough to take wool, while a 28 is tiny and delicate. A 24 is the standard/usual cross stitch needle for 14-count, while kits with 10-count aida generally provide a 22. That said, I’ve had several kits give me 14-count aida and a size 22 needle, an absurdity I do not like.)
The sharp, large-eye needles in K-Mart’s embroidery kits ($5 AUD) work well for freehand embroidery or edging patches when sewing with full strands of floss.
For size 24 and 26 tapestry needles, I buy Daiso’s set (22-26, $2.80 AUD). I’ve had a few with rougher or misshapen eyes, but the good ones move through the fabric reasonably smoothly. I like to cross stitch with a needle a size smaller than recommended because lighter needles are easier on my hands, but 26s are hard to find. Daiso also has an acceptable embroidery crewel set for the same price, if you can’t get the Klasse set.
My best size 24 tapestry needles come from op-shopped cross-stitch kits. DMC and Semco-branded kits usually come with decent needles (and floss).
I despise Sullivans’s needles (Lincraft, around $3.50 AUD). Their sharp needles aren’t particularly sharp. Smaller needles snap under slight pressure. Conversely, their large tapestry needles (18-22) are oddly chunky, so that a Sullivans 20 is as thick as my Klasse 18s and a Sullivans 22 is as thick as my Klasse 20s. This may not be a problem for folks who don’t care when thicker needles widen holes in aida and canvas, but I’m not one of those people!
I used Sullivans’s size 26 tapestry needles before I bought packs with a changed needle shape. Instead of slightly tapering to a blunt end, they now finish in a short point. This isn’t a true point like that of a sharp needle, but it’s enough to constantly catch the fabric. There’s no place for these needles, in my opinion, but the fires of hell.
Unless you’re only using colours from one or two flags, pride-related embroidery requires a range of colours. eBay offers the cheapest, easiest way to do this, with vendors selling lots of unbranded cotton floss (usually 50, 100, 200 or 300 skeins) for a fraction of the price needed to purchase said skeins individually. The upside is that you can experiment for a small outlay … and it’s easier to select the perfect pink for the idemromantic flag when comparing several light pinks. The downside is an inability to chose colours and unreliable thread quality. Some of my skeins lay nicely over the fabric, while others are matte, thick, knotty, fraying, clumpy or feathery.
Daiso’s 12-skein cotton multi packs ($2.80 AUD) are the worst (and another hellfire candidate). While offering good colour selection (pastels, brights, darks, variegated), the floss from this pack frays, splits and feathers. It’s hard to thread and breaks under light tension. Because it’s matte, it can’t be blended with most other flosses. That said, I buy Daiso’s six-pack metallic polyester floss (also $2.80 AUD). It’s also difficult to use, but not much more than DMC’s nightmarish Light Effects metallics. For metallic accents, it’s cheaper to buy one Daiso pack over six separate skeins.
K-Mart’s embroidery kit floss is like the eBay skeins: not great, but better than the Daiso multi-packs. 16 skeins of mostly-pastel floss are available in K-Mart’s friendship bracelet kit (also $5 AUD). This set also contains short lengths of gold and silver thread very similar to Light Effects:
Despite being a little prone to knotting, Sullivans’s cotton floss was a good compromise between price and thread quality. It doesn’t lie on the fabric quite as smoothly as DMC or Anchor, but it won’t feather and has a consistent thickness. At 70 cents a skein, it was more affordable. Since Lincraft has raised the price to $1 AUD, however, I see no reason to buy Sullivans when, with a Lincraft membership, you can buy DMC floss for only 5 cents more per skein.
DMC’s cotton is vibrant, shiny, gorgeous and possessed of a huge colour range. It’s available at most craft and sewing shops (and many online vendors). It’s easy to thread, rests smoothly against the fabric, and rarely snags or knots, making it the nicest readily-available embroidery floss. Lincraft and Spotlight have a 30% off deal for members with a starting price of $1.05 AUD and up ($1.50 AUD and up for non-members) per skein. I wait for the 40% off sales, though!
Anchor’s cotton has less shine, but I prefer its deeper, richer colours. (Sometimes DMC is a little too bright.) It must have once been readily available because it forms the bulk of my grandmother’s floss collection, but now I can only buy Anchor via eBay and some online retailers. Thread thickness sometimes varies between vintage skeins, but I don’t have that problem with more recently-produced skeins. The colour matching between Anchor’s vintage and modern skeins is astoundingly consistent!
Beginners (especially those new to hand sewing) should start with the best floss they can access. Sometimes I find cheap floss frustrating, even though I’ve been sewing for two-thirds of my life, when it frays, splits, knots and lumps. Despite cheap kits often being marketed for beginners, I think the reverse is true: experienced stitchers are better able to wrangle recalcitrant cotton. If you can get floss that will give you the easiest possible stitching experience–and the encouragement of a nicer-looking finished piece–while you learn, practice and gain confidence, you should.
Stiff, heavily-starched and slightly-plastic-feeling aida works great for patches. As long as it isn’t floppy or thin, cheap fabric will do just fine. Unfortunately, aida isn’t the easiest thing to find: even cheap eBay aida isn’t that cheap! I used to buy an unbranded pre-cut 14-count pack for $3.50 AUD from a dollar shop in Melbourne before they ran out of stock; alas, no dollar shop I’ve come across since has it.
Daiso is the only semi-reliable supplier of inexpensive aida, selling 11-count pre-cut pieces ($2.80 AUD). It’s very stiff, making it ideal for patches, but you get less fabric compared to the Lincraft and Big W packs.
When needing new aida, I buy Sullivans’s pre-cut 14-count aida (Lincraft, $8.50 AUD) during a 30% or 40% off sale. It isn’t great quality in terms of smoothness, texture and evenness of holes; it feels nowhere near as nice to stitch on as Zweigart ($18-20 AUD). But it’s stiff and it’s cheap … well, cheaper.
Big W sells pre-cut 14-count aida (same 36 x 45 cm dimensions as Sullivans) for $6 AUD, but I’ve never used it. Big W also sells cross stitch kits, and I’ve sometimes picked them up on clearance for around $3-4 AUD.
Fabric Stiffener / Treatment
I have fabric stiffener that I should use. But … it’s heavy, the bottle is awkward to handle, I have to find and wash a paintbrush to apply said stiffener, and the bottle doesn’t fit in my sewing box. It’s a thousand times more convenient, if I want to treat the edges of a patch, to whip out K-Mart’s clear/top coat nail polish ($2 AUD, no longer available). This is poor practice in terms of patch longevity and preservation (nail polish yellows over time), but convenience wins.
If you’re like me (disabled, kind of lazy), it’s not worth spending money on the fabric stiffener you’re going to use maybe once a decade (if that). Just surrender to the nail polish!
Storage / Organisation
I’m an “everything has its spot and messing up my system equals catastrophe” autistic. For this reason, I don’t like traditional sewing boxes/baskets with a deep base and only a single divider tray. I prefer an abundance of trays and sections so that everything has an obvious home, making objects easy to spot and grab.
K-Mart sells glittery pink and grey tackle-style boxes for $8 AUD. (I found glittery purple ones on clearance for $5!) I have two–one for regular hand sewing, one for embroidery–and as someone who sews sitting on my bed, I find this box strikes a good compromise between having everything tidy and grabbable (totally a word) and not taking up too much space when open. Divider boxes (one cut down to fit) for floss nestle inside the base, and I’ve space for all my regularly-used sewing bits on the two extendible shelves.
I store needles in the containers from the K-Mart embroidery kits, the Klasse needle set cassettes and empty Gutermann thread spools. (The twisting end of the spool can be pulled free, revealing a compartment good for housing longer needles.) Sticky labels tell me what I’ve stashed in each so I don’t have to rummage though several to find that one specific needle.
I drop my in-use needles onto a magnetic pin dish when grabbing a new strand of cotton or switching between pre-threaded needles. (It’s much easier to have a threaded needle per colour, if you’ve enough needles.) I bought my Semco dish from Spotlight ($3 AUD), but I also have a round dollar-shop one ($2.50 AUD). Instead of a needle minder, I use two small fridge magnets: the trick is that they must stack together so that one magnet side attracts one covered side. (Some magnets will repel each other instead.) Place a magnet on each side of the cloth so they stack; attach needle to the side showing the raw magnet. Easy and cheap!
Birch’s floss cards/bobbins are available at Lincraft and Spotlight, but my local Lincraft is often out of stock. I pick up a pack if there’s one available during 30% or 40% off sales, even if I think that I have enough spares. (Every time I’ve needed more floss cards to sort a bag of op-shop threads, Lincraft has given me nothing but empty shelves and bitter disappointment.) eBay sells unbranded cards, but they’re roughly the same price as on-sale Birch ones … and I know these fit my compartment boxes.
Most dollar shops sell divider/compartment boxes in various sizes and styles for at least a few dollars less than Lincraft or Spotlight. In fact, I don’t buy sewing storage boxes from chain craft stores. Try dollar shops, Daiso, The Reject Shop and K-Mart. Take a floss card with you (or keep one in your wallet/purse) so you can check it against the size of the box’s compartments before purchasing, because standard compartment height and width is not always a thing.
Birch and Sullivans’s basic embroidery scissors aren’t that sharp (contrary to the package’s warning for extremely sharp blades). This makes close, precise cutting more difficult, especially when using said scissors to remove sections of stitching. Sullivans’s crane and unicorn embroidery scissors are also quite expensive at $16-$20 AUD without being much sharper. I can’t help but feel that you’re paying for novelty and cuteness over function.
What’s gorgeous to look at and sharp? Semco’s classical scissors, another entry in the “cheaper and better” category. I have #2 and #3 and, for inexpensive embroidery scissors (because good scissors have not-so-good price tags), they’re fabulous. And pretty. And sharp. Please note, however, that I’m speaking as a possessor of long, thin fingers!
Folks lacking access to craft stores can try something more widely available (but not much less expensive): nail scissors. I prefer a finer, narrower blade (useful for unpicking), but anything small and sharp will do.
Other Useful Odds and Ends
Tweezers: Great for grabbing those persistent strands of thread that won’t come free. I like the needle-nose style, which aren’t as common as the flat and angled tweezers. I got my set (around $4 AUD) from The Reject Shop. Probably available anywhere you’ll find nail scissors!
Finger Grips/Protectors: I have excema patches on my right thumb and middle finger that I need to protect from the rub of needle and thread, but I can’t find small-enough finger grips, protectors or covers. So I use rubber gloves! If you have a pair with a finger that fits snugly over the finger in need of protection or extra grippage, just cut off the (glove’s) finger and use as is. If your hands are too thin for the smallest finger of the smallest rubber gloves, cut off the (glove’s) finger, cut a slit down one side to remove excess material, and stitch up the seam with thread and a sharp needle.
(There’s something a little ironic about my needing to sew the adaptive equipment I need to comfortably sew, no?)
Pens/Markers: My Birch air-erasable marker (Spotlight, $6 AUD) is great for short-term impermanent marking, although the ink fades much more quickly than stated. I use a Pilot Frixion pen for longer-term impermanent marking (like a freehand embroidery pattern); this ink only fades under the heat from a hairdryer or iron. The former are available at craft/sewing shops, while the Frixion pens, markers and highlighters are available at department stores, supermarkets and office supply shops. Buy these during back to school sales!
Pins: I use them like map pins to mark sections of counted-out aida. If, for example, a section of colour starts a little above, below or to the sides of my fabric’s mid-point, I place pins once I’ve figured out where to begin stitching. Since they’re not being used to hold together cloth, even cheap berry pins work fine.
And that’s the end of a monster post! I can’t stress enough that browsing through op/thrift shops, comparing prices and waiting for chain store sales are the best ways to stretch your sewing budget. Unfortunately, this is difficult for people who don’t have time, a good memory for prices or access to transportation/shops. I hope this post helps my fellow Aussies a little with the second problem, but there are no easy solutions for the others.
I’ll conclude by mentioning that I have no affiliation with the vendors, brands and products mentioned. I am in no way sponsored by the relevant companies in my expressions of affection for fancy-looking scissors. Everything mentioned above has been purchased by me or by a relative (who gifted to me said scissors on various holidays). Additionally, your finances, region, resources and experiences may result in different conclusions. You may like Sullivans’s needles while finding Sunday markets a better source for second-hand aida–and if so, that’s fabulous.